Co-author of "Your Brain on Ink"
Deborah Ross is co-author of Your Brain on Ink, A Workbook on Neuroplasticity and the Journal Ladder which is a study of the place where neuroscience crosses paths with expressive writing. Deborah’s knowledge is wide and deep, and it’s with great excitement that we welcome her to Journaling.com.
Deborah is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Journal Therapist, and faculty member at the Center for Journal Therapy’s Therapeutic Writing Institute. At the end of 2015, she left the world of private practice psychotherapy to focus on teaching workshops, hosting writing groups and offering private instruction in journaling/expressive writing in the Washington DC metro area. She describes this new season of life as “refiring” rather than retiring. Deborah completed her studies in Interpersonal Neurobiology through Dr. Dan Siegel’s Mindsight Institute and incorporates those learnings into her work as they are hopeful, promote resilience, and can help us live a more integrated life. In addition, she offers a year-long meditation program and teaches in health care settings including those that serve cancer patients and people with brain injuries.
To learn more about Deborah’s work, listen to her interview on The Power of Journaling or read below to see highlights from our conversation.
What the Journaling Research Tells Us
Deborah refers to journaling as an “evidence-based paradigm,” which means it’s a practice that has been subjected to rigorous research over many decades.
In the early eighties, researchers asked why talking to a therapist provided better therapeutic outcomes than confiding in a a family member or a friend. Dr. James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas in Austin, and a recent guest at Journaling.com, asked a different question. Can individuals achieve therapeutic outcomes through self-engaged reflection and observation? We journalers won’t be surprised to learn that the answer was a proven yes. But Pennebaker showed that the methods we choose matter, and he became an eloquent spokesperson for the unique benefits of expressive writing.
In Pennebaker’s paradigm, Deborah explains, expressive writing puts the writer in relationship with their writing. To foster this meaningful connection, one must step back and become an objective observer. Expressive writing helps us to figure out how to move forward and extract meaning from an experience. This approach to journaling, Deborah points out, is a different style of writing than simply raging on a page.
In the nineties, with the use of the functional MRI, research began to focus on the brain. Researchers showed that what we pay attention to actually helps determine our individualized brain structure. Deborah shares a Buddhist expression that exemplifies this idea, “The brain takes the shape that the mind rests upon.” This knowledge reminds us to focus our thinking in positive ways.
Better understanding of how the brain works can help guide our journaling practices.Deborah Ross
Rewire Your Brain and Counter Your Negativity Bias
The Negativity Bias is explained by Deborah as the idea that our brains remain wired toward survival based on a time when the operative question was “Am I going to have lunch or be lunch?” Deborah references a fitting analogy that describes our brains’ typical tendencies. The brain is Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive.
In more dangerous times these tendencies were beneficial in that they kept us alert and alive. But today, when hyper-vigilance is less imperative, negative experiences continue to be stored in our brains more efficiently than positive experiences. This, Deborah explains, is the reason that we must consciously archive our positive experiences with mindfulness and intention. Writing is a beautiful and integral part of this archiving process.
While we can use our journals to record trauma, grief, rage and disappointment, Deborah reminds us that our journals can also “house positive installations to serve as resources that add immeasurably to the quality of our lives.”
Journaling Increases Firing Efficiency
As the research evolved, many exciting discoveries were made. Deborah points to current thinking showing that brains of elite experts in all fields demonstrate a “firing efficiency of circuitry” when performing their specialized skillset. The rate of firing was found to be 3000% more rapid than the average individual! It is assumed that this is in part due to the number of times that expert has repeated a single skill over and over again.
Deborah invites us to imagine the outcome if we were to repeatedly focus on a single theme in our journals. In time, she surmises, this repeated exploration would increase our firing efficiency as it relates to managing specific thoughts and feelings.
Deborah shows that understanding how the brain works can help guide our journaling practices as well as influence how and what we journal about.
The Source of Our Creativity and Intuition
An understanding of the brain helps us to tap into our full potential. Deborah reports that there is a common assumption that we have pinpointed areas of the brain that determine our levels of intuition and creativity.
In actuality, she explains, science shows that creativity and intuition are the results of how well we integrate our brains and whether or not parts of our circuitry successfully communicate with each other. How our circuity becomes wired is a direct result of where we focus our thinking. Journaling, which Deborah considers an intention practice similar to meditation, directly impacts the circuitry in our brains.
Writing Tips to Rewire Your Brain
Deborah provides two simple techniques to help rewire our brains
- Try a Reflection Write. When you’ve come to the end of a writing session, take a short break. Then return to your journal and absorb the words you’ve just written.
- Identify and write about aha moments that are revealed.
- Notice unexpected places your writing led you toward.
- Observe absences. Did thoughts and feelings you expected to wrestle with get left off the page?
- Be aware of the embodied experience of writing. Notice words that made your shoulders hunch as you wrote them, observe where you gripped the pen tighter or your breathing eased. This is actually putting you in relationship with your writing and allowing you to witness your brain’s processes.
- Rethink your expressions of gratitude. Deborah observed, “Many of my students have reported gratitude journaling to be a flat experience,” and she explains the reason for this. “When people express positives merely as the absence of a negative, for example, ‘I’m grateful that I didn’t get angry at my teen today,’ the brain doesn’t actually register this detail as a positive.
Deborah suggests flipping this sentence to express it as a positive. “I’m grateful my teen and I had an easy exchange today.”
Follow an expression of gratitude with writing that tells the brain the reasons this moment matters. That statement lets your brain know the reasons it should make room for this story and should store it as a memory. Deborah goes on to explain that our brains are good at metaphor and meaning making. We are a story-prone species. This means that simply listing things can be helpful but adding another line about why the details are meaningful will cement them in your mind and have a more long-term and meaningful impact.